Is ACC’s choice of Louisville related to Tar Heels academic scandal?


In 1968, five years after the North Carolina legislature had passed a Speaker Ban Law designed to keep Communists and others from speaking on university campuses, the law was overturned as too vague. Passed in a rush in 1963, the law could not be vetoed at the time by the Governor. In one of life’s ironies, UNC system President William Friday opposed the law but was a named defendant in that lawsuit.

In 1966, my uncle Liston B. Ramsey was still fairly new to the North Carolina House of Representatives. Eventually Speaker of the House in the unicameral system where the House is the exclusive holder of the State’s purse-strings, my memory of my uncle’s reaction to the legislation is only fragmentary at this point.

But his strong belief in the independence of North Carolina’s university system, which had made it one of the greatest publicly funded universities in the world, is beyond a doubt.

University atmosphere and draw part of big time college football attraction. Credit: Bob Donnan-US PRESSWIRE

It is also beyond a doubt but that while he might have had some misgivings if he had known about my attendance during the speech given from a public sidewalk and UNC’s wall on Franklin Street in protest of the law in 1966, he did not agree with the purposes of the law or its affect by that time.

The independence of UNC and Bill Friday are back in the news these days. UNC is involved in four public investigations and for all we know other non-public investigations because of its failure to protect its academic prowess and reputation once again. This remains a far-ranging  investigation of potentially monumental proportions and impact.

I am certain that my uncle did not mean independence from this sort of an inquiry and that he would have favored this one too, not just because he was an NC State fan first and foremost as best I remember. His desire was to ensure his beloved university system’s academic independence and superiority.

The gradual drip of information and disclosures about the Tar Heel academic scandal may make it easier to take and to forget. And the fact that most come first from the News & Observer, a paper many UNC alums see as biased against the Heels, make what we know all the more difficult to swallow. We know that paper favors NC State.

Yet as we cumulate the information that has emerged from the Tar Heels academic scandal now engulfing basketball, football and women, we must confront the reality of what major college sports have wrought on UNC, one of the premier universities in the United States.

And we need to keep this scandal and its implications at the forefront of other news that first appears to be unrelated.

The just announced addition of Louisville to the ACC is a case in point.

Louisville fits none of the criteria that have made the ACC what it has been since it was first formed in the 1950s. This university is ranked 160th among all colleges in the latest US News & World Report national university rankings. Louisville graduates only 22% of its undergraduate classes within four years. UNC graduates 77% of its students in the same amount of time.

Indeed, Louisville has none of the criteria formerly thought to be required of any ACC school. It is not an elite academic university. It does not in a state that borders the Atlantic Ocean. And it does not have the type of robust research facilities and background the other members have.

However, it does have one thing that matches what the ACC is seeking: a superior revenue sports program.

Its nationally ranked football program is likely to remain a part of the top 25 for years to come. And its elite basketball program will improve on the ACC’s already decidedly huge footprint in that sport.

It also has one other thing that the ACC and its member universities may not want but will also get with Louisville. An academic side that has undoubtedly learned how to manage this superiority despite its  commitment to teaching and graduating its students.

Many of the latest revelations about UNC’s academic scandal come from Mary Willingham. Willingham, Assistant Director of the Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling, has studied and written about the inherent problems of athletic departments today who seek superior athletes to keep their teams at the top of their revenue sports.

According to Willingham, top student athletes’ academic shortcomings often if not usually make it unlikely if not impossible for the athlete to remain eligible to compete without cheating.

Willingham says that her need to make her disclosures increased dramatically after attending Bill Friday’s recent funeral. Friday, who was president of the UNC system for thirty years, made no bones of the fact that he believed it was best to ensure that academics took precedent at UNC. After all, this was the mission of the university. As the News & Observer said in late October,

"“Friday spoke for years against the tendency of major college athletics like a parasite to sicken its host. But for all his stature, his warnings could not keep the college sports industry – an auxiliary, truth be told, of the TV industry and the professional leagues – from swelling to absurd proportions, as compared with campus endeavors that have nothing to do with entertainment.”"

There may be no speech like President Eisenhower’s Farewell Speech that Bill Friday gave on this topic. But his parasite analogy, complete with its most sinister meanings, make this a theme worthy of continuing concern into the future of not only UNC and the ACC but the entire NCAA.

North Carolina senator Thom Goolsby has voiced such concern about the academics scandal, centering on the “Special Admits” program that has allowed student-athletes not meeting university standards to be admitted anyway, that he has called for a criminal investigation of UNC and for the firing of UNC trustees.

"“Additionally, the UNC Board of Governors should seriously consider asking for the resignations of current UNC Trustees who failed to safeguard academic integrity. They have shown little willingness to get to the truth of this scandal and cure the infection. When UNC comes to the General Assembly for more funding, university officials should expect that legislators charged with representing the taxpayers will demand answers.”"

As I have said for some time, there is also no excuse for Chancellor Holden Thorp to have escaped accountability for this academic problem. If anyone is to blame, it has to start at least with him. Allowing him to resign, in a way that fully excuses his failures, is unacceptable.

What concerns exist because of this scandal have to do with admissions and other aspects of the academic administration of students at UNC, not the athletic departments.

The apparent effort by Thorp and others to make this an athletic failure is completely false and entirely disingenuous, as Willingham’s latest revelations show.

Willingham tells us that some of her students had never read a book or written a paragraph. Yet UNC allegedly believes that those student-athletes admitted who clearly need remediation can do their academic and sports work for more than 70 hours a week – – ten hours a day, every day while participating in their sport.

This is the figure that Willingham calculates to be correct for students engaged in sports at major universities at page 12 of her paper Athletics vs. Academics, a Clash of Cultures. Few people on earth work such hours, or can do so without suffering injury that might last over their entire lifetimes.

Athletics vs. Academics, a Clash of Cultures includes Appendix A, which tracks those schools who submitted enough information to allow her to compare the overall percentage of freshman and the percentage of those playing football who were admitted to school through exceptions to the normal entrance requirements.

Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia Tech, Iowa State, NC State and West Virginia all admitted around 20% or fewer students as exceptions to the normal entrance requirements in both categories, with most having both figures at or below 10%.

While admission standards may not be as high at some of these schools as in others, these facts make it clear that success on the football field does not necessarily require giving up academic standards.

Five universities, California, Georgia, LSU, Oklahoma and Texas A&M, include four who admitted less than 10% as exceptions overall but with 90% of football players admitted outside the requirements. LSU’s figures are 20% and 80% respectively. Consider this when you watch Georgia play Alabama for the SEC championship.

UNC is not on this list. However, Willingham indicates that the number of Special Admits  is pretty small.

Nonetheless, after the ACC presidents voted so quickly to admit Louisville, one must ask whether they think that Louisville will be able to improve its academic stature as it moves forward as an ACC member. I believe some other ACC members have done so since they became members.

Or, are the ACC presidents willing to accept Louisville’s lower graduation rates as inevitable when operating at the upper echelons of revenue-generating sports.

If it is the latter, we have reached the point where Bill Friday’s parasite has apparently eaten through academics in the interest of revenue-generating sports.